Four things that suck about project management

Project management is not a glamorous job.   The better you are, the less you’re noticed: things just hum along nicely, with no major conflicts or serious misunderstandings.  If you’re diligent, skilled, dedicated and competent, someone else will get credit.  The software, application, website or rebuild you so lovingly slaved over will be attributed to your boss, your client, or – if you’re lucky – to your developers or creatives.

In fact, the only time a project manager can rely on getting any real attention is when things go wrong.  A host of complex issues may be present – problematic management behaviour, shifting requirements, lack of necessary cooperation from the wider business, underinvestment in skill or resource – but the blame is ultimately yours.  You’re the project manager.

So what is it about this demanding, stress-inducing, crazy-making, often thankless job that keeps us so engaged?  We build a set of hard-won skills that at best flies under the corporate radar, and at worst gets us all the wrong kind of attention.  If things go well, someone else takes credit for our work.  If things don’t go well – as is so often the case – someone else’s dysfunction gets laid at our door.

If we practice our craft long enough, we'll recognise a set of frustrations that are common to all project leaders in the digital space. 

1.Knowledge isn’t power. Power is power.

Understanding digital doesn’t mean anyone will listen to you. 

A lot of managers get frustrated here.  And the truth is, it’s a frustrating place to be.  We know our subject, we know our team, and a lot of the time, we understand what the business needs.  We just don’t have enough power to get the outcomes we want.

Well…we do.  Just not in the way we think.  We can control ourselves, our reactions and the way we manage up and manage down.  And doing these things right builds influence's hard-working twin: credibility.

You build credibility by being on time. You build credibility by making yourself available and accountable.  You answer your phone.  You are present and engaged, day in and day out.  You do all these things even when other people don’t.  And when you mess up, or react badly, you own it as soon as you realise you’ve done it.

Even if people are slacking, or complaining, or running into sticky issues with power – you keep building your credibility.  When you’ve built loads of credibility, you build some more.  This is how you become influential to people with power.  And then you use your influence to get the outcomes you believe are right.

This is where a lot of very intelligent people go wrong.  You don’t get what you want by knowing more things, having more skills, or being more right. But you can grow genuine influence in almost any environment if you keep your eye on the long game and understand how power works.

2. Communication is an essential nutrient.  A project starved of communication will wither and die.

And no, giving an order isn’t communication.  Complaining to a third party isn’t communication.  Getting distracted by personality and politics isn't communcation.

If you don’t communicate with your direct reports, your boss and your stakeholders, you’re starving your project.  And even bad news is a nutrient.

3. It’s not fun to help build something, but it’s fun to complain afterward.

This is reality.  The majority of the people you will work for and work with will prove this over and over.  There's nothing you can do about it.

Left to their own devices, people will make themselves unavailable when you’re in development phase.  Post-delivery, the same people will make themselves highly available to criticise the final product and apportion blame.  Some of these are people you believed were on your side.  Project managers learn this through bitter experience (emphasis on the ‘bitter’).  It’s a digital project manager’s rite of passage.

First, accept this.  It won’t change. 

Second, don’t wait for it to happen.  Be aware that it will happen and manage your project as though it was just around every corner.  Because it is.  Plan for it the way you plan user testing, deployment and release.  It’s not pleasant, but its reality.

4. There is only one perspective.  And it’s mine.

If you stick with project management long enough, and you navigate enough challenges, you learn how to switch perspective in an instant.  You’ll get really good at reframing problems as you get information from new sources.  Just don’t expect it from other people.  

People cling to beliefs that reinforce their self-perception.  In some cases, evidence is actually counterproductive.  What’s important to people is who they think they are and who they want other people to think they are.  And everyone thinks they’re right.  Providing evidence to the contrary is seldom helpful.

So understand that when you’re actively trying to change someone’s perspective, you’re probably wasting your energy and maybe wasting some of the influence you’ve built up.

Instead, reframe what the conversation really is - an opportunity to build more influence.  Figure out what his or her perspective is and ask yourself how the world looks from there.  What’s motivating you, now that you see the world this way? Try to work from there.  The less problems you find with people’s perspective, the more they relax and maybe listen to you.

So there they are, four things that every project manager should probably make peace with.  Once you do, you may find that - despite its challenges - project management has the potential to be the most satisfying professions in digital.  

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Sarah Berman is Digital Manager at The Drum.

Sarah spent several years as a web developer before moving into managing creative teams and digital projects. A frequent speaker on digital management, Sarah is a certified Scrum Master and holds an MBA from Strathclyde Business School.

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